KS3 Music

a professional development programme


There are many reasons why pupils may not find that learning is structured to enable musical understanding. You can see an extensive list of common issues and solutions here, but this section is designed to help teachers with two key issues:

  • how to be sure that the range of styles, genres and traditions covered across the key stage provides an appropriate breadth of musical understanding;

  • how to help pupils work with and develop the raw materials of sound as abstract ideas that can be shaped into music that communicates ideas and feeling.

Select each tab below in turn to examine each of these key areas and develop specific techniques to challenge pupils in their musical learning.

Styles, genres and traditions

It is important that pupils learn about a range of culturally diverse musical styles, genres and traditions, developing over time an understanding of how each works. This:

  • ensures that pupils experience and learn about different forms of musical thinking, since styles, genres and traditions each have their own, distinctive modes of musical thinking and construction;
  • supports pupils’ own musical and creative development, by enabling them to explore and identify ways of working that appeal to them directly.

Typically, an effective scheme of work for KS3 music will therefore include units of work that produce balanced learning about:

  • musical styles (across time and place). Styles are generally tightly defined and enable the most ‘closed’ forms of musical learning. Pupils need to recognise and understand how styles are defined by their consistent use of particular conventions, processes and devices.

Key considerations for learning when exploring styles are … (i)

  • musical genres (music for a given purpose). Genres enable more open-ended learning than styles, reflecting a specific cultural or social function. Since music for a genre has to reflect its particular function, it will employ technical features that are common with other pieces from the same genre (e.g. all music for a procession needs to be played at a particular tempo).

Read more about genres … (ii)

Key considerations for learning when exploring genres are … (iii)

  • musical traditions (ways of working and producing). Traditions enable the most open-ended forms of musical learning: it is often hard to predict what the outcomes will sound like before the composing or performing process begins. They very often cut across styles and genres, describing ways of working rather than outcomes or purpose.

Key considerations for learning when exploring traditions are … (iv)

Use Activity Resource 4a to consider how to define a particular unit as a style, genre or tradition by focusing on the type of learning being developed (closed, guided or open).

You could now:


Abstract ideas

In music education, it is important for pupils ‘to work directly with the abstract musical ideas themselves, rather than titles’ (Ofsted, 2002). This ensures that pupils understand:

  • that music is sometimes there for its own sake, and not just for some external purpose;

  • that there are ways of manipulating musical materials that can lead to powerful forms of musical expression with an individual musical ‘voice’.

This way of working describes the tradition of abstract musical thinking. It can be defined as non-referential music: it exists purely as music without the need for an external point of reference, and is the complete opposite of programmatic music.

SCAA’s Optional tests and tasks, Unit 2: Musical ideas, published in 1996, provides a good example of what this might look like in a unit of work. The idea is simple: someone has found a page from a composer’s notebook, with various jottings and ideas for a composition that was never completed. Pupils are given a copy of the page and asked to explore the ideas and their potential (a process which includes deciding what not to use as well as what to develop further). They are then commissioned to expand their initial analysis of the ideas into a full composition, thereby completing the process begun by the notebook’s creator.

Use Activity Resource 4b to help you reflect on the nature of activities which promote abstract musical thinking.

You could then:



(i) Key considerations for learning when exploring styles are therefore rhythm, melody, harmony, instrumentation – those specific musical ingredients that enable a particular style of music to be easily identified. Examples of styles from different periods of history might include music from early times (medieval music) to the recent past (popular music from the 1950s and 1960s) and present day (hip hop). They might also include styles that have developed over a long period of time (folk music) or those from different places around the world (gamelan or Indian classical music).

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(ii) However, genres are distinctively different from styles by demonstrating considerable variety: all music for dance has certain conventions that enable the dancing to be effective, but dance music can adopt a wide range of resources, structures and styles (compare, for instance, a waltz with a 1970s disco dance). This leads to what can be termed ‘guided learning’: some aspects are closed or fixed, while others provide a certain degree of choice and freedom.

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(iii) Key considerations for learning when exploring genres are therefore the purpose of the music, the venue, audience, and how audience and performers interact. Examples of genres include music for dance, for a procession, for fanfares, for film, for a concert audience, for adverts.

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(iv)Key considerations for learning when exploring traditions are therefore techniques such as improvisation, experimentation, notation (cross-cultural traditions) or the influence of particular places and societies (cultural traditions such as the brass brand tradition). Other examples of traditions include the Western classical tradition, vocal traditions, world and popular music traditions, and the tradition of working with abstract musical ideas.

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